Is New York City About to Sue the Census Again?

Bloomberg wants to know why the numbers aren't higher

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Data from the 2010 census continues to pour in. New York City's numbers were released today, and in typical Big Apple style, city officials are already pushing back. "We don't quite understand the numbers," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this morning. "I'm flabbergasted," agreed Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. "I know they made a big, big mistake."

What's the problem here? The 2010 census contains a number of surprising findings. Taken together, say local leaders, they suggest a serious problem of underreporting. Among the unexpected finds:

  • The borough of Queens--New York's largest by geography--only grew by 1,300 people, a statistic Mayor Bloomberg called "inconceivable." He said, "Think about that--1,300 people over 10 years. I’m not criticizing them, but it doesn’t make any sense."
  • New York City itself was found to have 8,175,133 residents, a 2.1 percent increase over 2000. But this figure is about 225,000 less than what had been predicted.
  • According to the census, the population of New York grew by 167,000 people since 2000. But Bloomberg says that the city has added 170,000 new housing units in that time, and so "it doesn't make any sense" that the census numbers should be so low. It's "totally incongruous," said the mayor.

Bloomberg and other NYC officials aren't just nitpicking for the sake of it. If the census numbers stand, they'll result in a two-member reduction of New York's House delegation, from 27 to 29. Lower numbers can also mean less federal aid for the city.

How do New York leaders account for such low stats? City demographers think that a lot of immigrants, living in "overcrowded and illegally divided apartments and basement cubicles," are going unreported, according to The New York Times. Marty Markowitz had particular questions about Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish communities, whose growth over the past decade doesn't seem to be reflected in the census numbers.

For now, Bloomberg and other city officials have only registered their displeasure in interviews and public statements. It remains to be seen whether the city will take a more litigious route. There'd certainly be ample precedent for that, though: New York sued the Department of Commerce after the 1980 census, effectively demanding a recount. (The court sided with the DoC, ruling that "a statistical adjustment of the 1980 census is not feasible.") In 1988, the city sued again, leading the charge for a group of city and state governments who anticipated that the 1990 census would deliver an inaccurate count. That case took more than seven years to resolve.

As quoted in the Times, Joseph J. Salvo, director of the City Planning Department’s population division, didn't hesitate to draw a comparison to the bad old days. “If you say to yourself [the 2010 census] looks like an undercount of 2.6 to 2.8 percent, that’s not out of line with what happened in 1990,” said Salvo. “Immediately, you’re suspicious."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.